Sport Rugby

Sunday 21 January 2018

Ireland must be feral in face of All Black muscle to avoid another week of Kiwi mockery

NEVER has an Ireland rugby team gone into an international surrounded by so little expectation.

A big statement but one borne out by bookmakers who are offering staggering odds on tomorrow's second Test in Christchurch.

New Zealand are rated as 1/40 favourites, which not only reflects how impressive the world champions were on their first outing under manager Steve Hansen last weekend, but is also a stunning insult for their opponents.

Irish rugby is coming off a season where it produced the Heineken Cup champions and losing finalists, the Pro12 runners-up and another semi-finalist as well as a World Cup victory in the southern hemisphere over the Tri-Nations champions.

By any standards, that is a season that should inspire confidence, but bookies deal in hard, recent evidence and to be rated so prohibitively is a massive reality check for a rugby nation still professing to be top-tier.

New Zealand expect Ireland to be eviscerated tomorrow. The 42-10 victory in Eden Park whetted the appetite and now the nation really wants Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Co to cash in against opponents they believe are ripe for a 60-70 point thrashing.

Hansen has made one, injury-enforced change, with Adam Thomson in for knee-injury victim Victor Vito, and has confidently stated he expects his team to improve significantly from last week due to their extra time together.

There is also the earthquake factor. Christchurch is a proud city, valiantly building its way back up after the devastation of last year and also regards itself as the rugby capital of New Zealand.

Not having Test rugby has hurt deeply and the All Blacks will be gloriously received tomorrow, while the players -- particularly the Canterbury-associated contingent like McCaw, Carter, Kieran Read and their coach -- will be especially driven.

When you put together those factors and weigh them against a supposedly demoralised Irish outfit staggering towards the end of their longest season, you can see where the bookmakers are coming from.

The hope, from an Irish point of view, is that Declan Kidney, his management team and their much-ridiculed players have a proper plan in place and the belief to back it up.

Selection

Kevin McLaughlin and Andrew Trimble were logical picks on the basis of extra experience and bulk, while the men they replaced, Peter O'Mahony and Simon Zebo, will be under less pressure off the bench.

It would seem more logical to use Trimble's extra size on the right wing, where he plays most regularly for Ulster, against Julian Savea.

After the Hurricanes winger's three tries on debut last week, Fergus McFadden candidly admitted that he had never felt as exposed.

However, Kidney explained yesterday that the Kildare man had done his study since last Saturday and would have been far less comfortable in the No 11 jersey where he does not feature for Leinster.

Gordon D'Arcy was the logical replacement for the injured Keith Earls in midfield, and his recall allows Brian O'Driscoll to return to his accustomed role of designated outside-centre.

There is also comfort in Mike Ross being available to fill the No 3 jersey once again.

There are, however, serious questions at second-row and scrum-half.

Donncha O'Callaghan has had a tough season but he is on tour and driven by the desire to prove himself. He would have brought savvy, work rate and excellent turnover-inducing defence to the Irish cause and is a natural No 4, front-of-the-line second-row.

Kidney said he stuck with Dan Tuohy for extra variation in the line-out, but O'Callaghan is a secure ball-winner at two, and Tuohy will need a 50pc increase in performance to justify his retention.

With Leinster providing two props, the back-row, out-half, midfield and two of the back three, there was also a strong argument for going with Eoin Reddan to partner Jonathan Sexton at half-back.

However, while acknowledging that Conor Murray needs to play more instinctively rather than 'to shape', Kidney has stuck with the bigger scrum-half and backed him to learn from last weekend.

Murray's defence is superb but the major problems are speed of distribution -- way behind Aaron Smith's last week -- and box-kicking. Murray must clear ball far quicker if Ireland are to prosper.

Attack

Ireland showed glimpses of the damage they are capable of in Eden Park but, as they have repeated all week, it is essential they increase possession and reduce turnovers.

They also need to play a smarter territorial game, which places the onus on Sexton's kicking.

With the weather set to be windy, wet and greasy, proper use of the kick-chase and kicking for position would be a profitable tactic.

Ireland are not going to beat the All Blacks for pace in their backline but the Leinster element brings familiarity and a proven ability to off-load and find gaps which should be indulged.

As ever, a great deal hinges on the quality of set-piece and breakdown ball. Ross' return should ensure a solid scrum -- although there are still doubts about his availability -- but there is nothing surer than the All Blacks targeting Sean O'Brien after his excellent display in Eden Park.

McLaughlin and Heaslip (who wins his 50th cap) are there to offer support and there has never been a better time for that Leinster trio to shine.

Defence

The big one. Ireland gave the All Blacks far too much time and space on the ball in the first Test. The Irish contention is that it goes back to ruck possession and then having to adjust, but Ireland always look better when they are rushing up in defence with shooters cutting down options, and the priority has to be to blitz New Zealand's threat-laden backline.

When the ball goes to the touchlines it is essential that Ireland's wingers learn from the mistakes of last weekend and stay wide, trusting the men inside them, while they guard the outside.

Attitude

Hansen said it yesterday, for all the machinations of selection and tactics, attitude is everything and Ireland's was wanting last weekend.

It was not that the players were shirking work, it was that they were lacking an aggressive edge and the 'screw you' defiance needed against the world champions.

These are proud, professional players who have had a week to fester and ferment while mockery has rained down around them. Long season, injury problems, strength of opposition ... all provisos go out the window, Ireland have to be feral to compete.

Verdict

Ireland may have never been seen as less likely to win a Test match but, weirdly, there is a different feel to this week, a sense around the squad that they're better equipped second time out and ready to rail in the face of widespread disdain.

The weather forecast, the fact that Kidney has bulked up his team -- while reflecting provincial form by picking 10 Leinster players -- and the existence of genuine anger among the players at their own performance suggest they will front up tomorrow.

A first victory over New Zealand may be beyond them but Ireland are due a big performance.

Irish Independent

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